Essential Tools (to Me), Part 2: The Dovetail Saw

I don’t have a favorite tool. I really don’t. My “favorite” tool is whichever well-made, ergonomic tool will do the job I need to get done at the moment.

But if I had to pick one, favorite tool out of the dozens I own and use regularly, my dovetail saw would be a strong contender.

I built this saw from a kit in 2014, using a blade, spine, and saw nuts from Isaac Smith at Blackburn Toolworks. Like the stair saw I featured in my last post, the handle is made from spalted pecan. (One of these days I’ll catalog every tool I own that includes wood from that single pecan log. There are a lot of them.) The saw blade itself is 10″ long, and the the tooth size is 15 ppi, which is pretty fine.

Although I made the handle according to a template, I was able to shape it to fit my own hand exactly. That’s probably why it’s one of my favorite tools.

This dovetail saw ideal for cutting dovetails, of course. But I don’t just use it for cutting the joints for which it is named. I reach for it all the time. The fine teeth make it ideal for all kinds of fine cutting tasks, from cutting dowel rods to length, to modifying hard rubber pipe stems. It will cut small tenons precisely, and it’s perfect for clipping the sharp corners off of workpieces before rounding them off with a block plane or spokeshave.

This saw is short enough that I can keep it in the chisel rack in my tool chest, allowing me to grab it quickly, make a cut or two, and then put it right back. And maybe it’s that very accessibility that encourages me to use this saw so often.

I suppose the fact that I built the saw myself is another reason it’s one of my favorite tools. But that’s not the only reason. I’ve made tools that I disliked after trying to use them, either because the design was flawed or because my execution was sloppy. But in the case of this dovetail saw, I was able to select or modify each detail to fit my own hands and the kind of work I like to do.

If you are an experienced woodworker but have never experimented with making your own tools, I encourage you to give it a shot. There are many great kits available that supply both plans and metal parts, and those are easiest to start with. Not only are they a different kind of woodworking from what you’re probably used to, but they can also result in a well-made tool that cost you a fraction of what a similar tool would cost new.

But the real value in making your own tools is much greater than saving a few bucks. First, making a tool yourself gives you practice in certain kinds of woodworking that you may not be used to, and it can really make you step up your game in terms of stock selection, precision, and detail work. Then, as I mentioned above, you can build the tool to your own unique specifications, whether that means scaling a handle up or down slightly to fit your body, adding or reducing weight just a smidge, or reshaping a contour until the tool comes to hand perfectly every time.

Finally, building a few of your own tools will give you a greater respect for the highly skilled people who make tools for a living. I used to think $250 was a lot to pay for a handsaw, but not anymore. After trying my own hand at saw making, I understand why well-built hand tools cost what they do.

After all, with a little care in use, storage, and maintenance, this backsaw should last the rest of my life. And who knows? I might just be able to pass it on to a young woodworker when my hands are finally too worn out to wield it any longer.

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1 Response to Essential Tools (to Me), Part 2: The Dovetail Saw

  1. Joe says:

    Thank you for sharing. That spalted wood is pretty. To knock out some small projects I had on the list, I built three tools in a row. With each one, I could see my carving and shaping skills increase. It was fun and I’m happy that I made them. For sure, I will be making more of my own tools. Compared to many woodworking projects, they don’t take that long to do.

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